When the Prince Albert Raiders return to Saskatchewan this weekend, they’ll either be carrying a trophy or have a chance to win one in front of an adoring home crowd.
Either way, Mayor Greg Dionne is sure they’ll be greeted at the airport by hundreds of fans.
The junior hockey club has been a source of pride for the city’s 35,000 residents this season, cruising first to the top of the Western Hockey League standings and now to the league finals, where they led the Giants 3-1 heading into Game 5 on Friday in Vancouver.
“Our community is just so excited,” Dionne said in a phone interview on Thursday. “We’re all in economic slowdown – the whole country, not just us – and (the Raiders) have now given us a positive thing to grasp onto and feel good about.”
The Raiders are now one game away from winning a league championship for the first time since 1985 – a full 13 years before the current team’s oldest player was born. A win would send the club to the Canadian Hockey League’s Memorial Cup tournament in Halifax later this month.
Signs of support blanket the town, located about 140 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon. City flags have temporarily been replaced with Raiders flags and people have taken to wearing green on Fridays.
Dionne even had a flag pole added to the trailer hitch on his truck so he can proudly fly a Raiders flag everywhere he goes.
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The team’s success has had an economic impact, too, with hockey fans from around the province pouring into the city to be part of the excitement, the mayor said.
“It’s done so much for our community,” Dionne said. “I’m so proud of them. It’s lifted up our community.”
When tickets for home playoff games go on sale, tents are pitched outside the arena as early as 8 p.m. the night before. Every game has sold out in less than an hour.
The local Boston Pizza started showing the games on the big screen after people came in saying that they couldn’t get a seat in the stands, said manager Chad Mogg. Fans wear their Raiders best, including jerseys, hats and retro T-shirts celebrating the 1985 championship win.
“Everyone in town has been really supportive of the team,” Mogg said. “Everywhere you go in business windows there are ‘Go Raiders Go!’ signs, people have it on their vehicles. It’s quite the excitement in the air around town.”
Hockey is one thing that binds Prince Albert together, said Raiders coach Marc Habscheid.
“And you know, it’s created the enthusiasm in town and it’s a bonding factor and it’s created a lot of excitement around here,” he said in a recent interview. “And we’re happy for that because it’s been a long time coming.”
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Prince Albert wasn’t expected to dominate this season, especially after the team finished last year with a dismal 21-44-7 record, third last in the WHL and a first-round exit from the playoffs.
But the Raiders went on an early 19-game win streak in October, en route to a league-best regular season record of 54-10-2.
The group always knew they could achieve something great, said right-winger Brett Leason.
“We had lots of adversity and a few pivotal Game 5s in the playoffs here,” the 20-year-old told reporters Wednesday after Prince Albert posted a 1-0 Game 4 win over the Giants.
“But we’ve been battling through it to get to this point and we’ve got to keep going.”
Leason led the Raiders in points with 36 goals and 53 assists through the regular season, including a 30-game point streak stretching from September through December. He’s currently riding a seven-game scoring streak in the playoffs and has 23 post-season points, tied with Giants defenceman Bowen Byram for the most in the WHL.
Solid goaltending has also been key for Prince Albert. Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Ian Scott leads WHL goalies in the post-season, boasting a 15-4-1 record with a .931 save percentage and 1.83 goals-against average.
“We came into this year knowing we could do something special and now we’re one game away,” Scott said.
While the Raiders have racked up numerous impressive goals and highlight reel-worthy saves this year, Habscheid said he’s most impressed with how they play as a group.
“They just go about their business, they just worry about their teammates,” the coach said. “There’s no big shot-itis with these guys. That’s what I like a lot about them.”